The Net Widens: Free Speech on Trial

Erin Thompson Sep 15, 2007

by Erin Thompson and Jessica Lee

Twelve jurors in San Diego will soon grapple with the definition of free speech in a post-September 11 world. Longtime environmental and animal rights activist Rod Coronado is currently on trial for a talk he gave in August 2003, in which the government alleges he publicly demonstrated how to make a bomb. He is charged with violating a law prohibiting the “distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction” and faces up to 20 years in federal prison. Although Coronado’s speech focused on biocentrism and indigenous rights, it was the last question of night that landed him in trouble when a woman asked how he constructed an incendiary device for a 1995 arson at an animal research lab. Coronado spent almost five years in prison for that action. In an essay posted online August 2006, Coronado wrote, “Don’t ask me how to burn down a building. Ask me how to grow watermelons or how to explain nature to a child.”
An FBI informant provided money, housing, a car and technological know-how to three “eco-terrorists” who were arrested in January 2006 for allegedly plotting arson attacks against a research facility, power stations and a dam in California on behalf of the Environmental Liberation Front. “Anna,” a young woman recruited to work for the FBI after she successfully posed as an anarchist for a political science project at her Florida junior college, befriended Eric McDavid, 28, Lauren Weiner, 20, and Zachary Jenson, 20, at a Philadelphia environmental conference in June 2005. Using FBI funds, “Anna” rented a cabin, where for a week she aggressively tried to convince the three defendants to attack several different sites. Accused by the FBI of being the ringleader in the plot, McDavid is currently on trial in a California court and facing a maximum of 20 years in prison for the actions.
Under a little-known law passed 15 years ago, six animal rights activists are currently serving prison sentences of between one and six years for being convicted of conspiracy and terrorism charges in March 2006. The six defendants, known as the SHAC 7 before charges were dropped against one other defendant, were not accused by the government of engaging in acts of violence or property destruction. Instead, the activists were convicted for their involvement in a website that reported on and expressed ideological support for animal rights protest activity. The 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act mandates stiff penalties for anyone engaged in the “physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise.” The website had been focused on the direct action campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences, a contract research facility that performs tests on live and dead animals, including rodents, dogs, cats and monkeys. An expanded version of the law, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, was passed in November 2006.

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